Why health literacy matters, and how to strengthen your own

Today, health information is available at our fingertips. A simple online search can give you thousands of results. But having access to so many opinions and research can feel overwhelming. That’s why it’s important for patients and members to have health literacy skills. This builds on current knowledge so that you can make informed healthcare decisions.

A few years ago, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services created an initiative called Healthy People 2030. The goal is to define and promote health literacy. The definitions they created are:

  • Personal health literacy is the degree to which individuals can find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.
  • Organizational health literacy is the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.

Both types of health literacy aim to connect individuals with healthcare organizations. They also support informed decision-making when it comes to health.

When you have health literacy skills, you can make better use of all the information you have available. This can include online sources and research, plus information from your doctors. Through this lens, you can feel empowered about health-related choices.

Consider these five strategies for building upon your health literacy skillset:

  1. Create a plan for every provider visit that includes key questions and topics. With this strategy, you’ll know in advance what you want to cover. That way, you can research any topic upfront. Then, you can ask about how the information might pertain to your health needs.
  2. Ask questions, even if you think they're obvious or silly. Many patients find it embarrassing to ask for clarification or to repeat info that's already been covered. However, health providers are more than happy to make sure you're fully informed during a visit. Plus, asking questions can help strengthen your health literacy because it prompts a sense of curiosity and openness.
  3. Turn to legitimate sources of health information. Unfortunately, there are many not-so-legit health "experts" online. Many of them share health information, even though they lack credentials and experience. Instead, turn to reputable information sources. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or known organizations like the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, or Mass General Brigham.
  4. Stay curious about how your body works. Maybe it's been quite a while since you were in a high school biology class, and even then, it was a great deal of information to navigate through. Consider this your new lifelong learning opportunity. Part of health literacy is understanding the way a treatment might affect your body. Or why certain lifestyle behaviors like smoking or being sedentary can raise your health risks. For that, it's useful to have a basic grasp of how your body works. If you have a specific medical condition, for example, take time to research how that issue may be affecting your body's systems and function.
  5. Talk with a patient navigator. If one is available in your health system, a patient navigator can help you with a variety of tasks. This may include assessing different treatment options, getting a referral to a specialist, or finding a clinical trial. In some cases, a patient navigator may have more time to spend with you than your health provider might. You can also contact customer service to learn more about understanding your health coverage and accessing a patient navigator.

Even those with healthcare experience can benefit from expanding their knowledge base. This is especially true if you have a condition that requires complex treatment. Building your health literacy skills can help you feel more in control. It can also help you to make more meaningful decisions for your health.

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